Coffee drinkers tend to live longer. It’s true; research points to a link between moderate consumption of coffee and a longer life span, according to a Harvard study. Lucky for Nebraskans, there are lots of ways to get a caffeine fix on a local level. Omaha’s coffee scene is vibrant, healthy, and even expanding, with a number of interesting, home-grown shops.
One of these is Zen Coffee Company, which focuses on serving a cup of joe with a purpose. This community-first mindset was built into the fabric of the business from the onset, due to owner Abby McLeay’s nonprofit background. “I wanted to create something based [on] community while serving good coffee, where we could give back to organizations and have the choice of choosing local organizations to work with,” she shared.
Zen also leads with education, at both its initial Farnam Hill locale, as well as a newer West Omaha spot. McLeay and company aim to demystify specialty coffee for their consumers, giving people of every coffee background—whether a newbie enthusiast or bean aficionado—an option to have exactly what they want. “We want people to feel comfortable [enough] to ask us what a cortado or pour-over is and allow us to teach them more about different types of coffee, different methods of coffee, and all the varieties they can try—but we want it to be approachable,” she said.
Atmosphere is a key factor in Zen Coffee Company’s success, as well. Fresh flowers on the tables, the smell of coffee in the air, a warm hello from a staff member, and curated background music all add to an air of hominess. Supporting other area companies adds to the community vibe, so even though the shop transitioned to baking most everything in house in 2020, it still sources locally whenever possible. Vendor partners include Ted & Wally’s, Artemis Teas, Bagel Bin, and All About Bees, though regular popups and events provide a platform for even more community collaboration. McLeay summed it up, adding that “Community is #1, [and] a coffee shop is the perfect place to create community.” Zen fans can look forward to an upcoming debut of toast flights to complement its popular coffee flights, which went viral earlier this year and have remained a top seller. Best-selling offerings include the Honey Bee and the Belgian Waffle Latte, plus McLeay’s longtime favorite, an Oat Milk Cortado. A fun fall drink menu is expected this year, as well as an expanded food menu with more vegan and gluten-free options.
Bakery beginnings led to another Omaha coffee juggernaut, Hardy Coffee Co. Owner Autumn Pruitt and her husband Luke opened a small bakery over a decade ago, initially subleasing a teeny storefront, then partnering on a more expansive space with Aromas Coffeehouse in the Old Market. Eventually, they had the chance to purchase the coffee shop. “We shared an address and were always associated with each other, but it wasn’t until this transition that I really dove into coffee headfirst and had the chance to cast a vision for the full menu of items and kind of customer service and experience that we wanted to provide,” explained Pruitt.
Since then, a rebrand inspired by Pruitt’s maiden name (Hardy) and two additional brick and mortar locations (Benson and North Omaha) have increased the Hardy Coffee Co. footprint. They now roast their own coffee, as well as over 30 wholesale accounts, though the bakery aspect remains a key factor in Hardy’s success. Pruitt said, “In a lot of ways, our bakery is still at the heart of our business. And, thankfully, coffee and baked goods pair really well together.” Cinnamon and pecan rolls remain the most purchased breakfast items. “The bakery team is also responsible for a lot of the fun ways we highlight different drinks by crafting so many unique syrups and sauces in-house.” This allows the business to change up the menu seasonally based on from-scratch offerings. Some inventive favorites from the past year include a maple cardamom latte, rose chai, honey nut café au lait, ruby red rosemary cold brew, and pineapple jalapeño sparkling limeade, among others.
Pruitt, who keeps it simple with her love for a great cup, said, “Right now, I’m starting my days with a naturally processed, single origin from Afonso da Silva in Brazil.” The shop aims to provide coffee that is both excellent in terms of origin but also showcases different growing regions, processing levels, and roast levels so customers can choose what they prefer. A solid place to start is the Benchmark Blend, which is sourced specifically to function well as a drip, cold brew, and espresso and consistently ranks as a best seller.
Looking to the future, Hardy will be expanding this season, with a new drive-through concept in southwest Omaha, “because it doesn’t always work to stop in at a local coffee shop…and you shouldn’t have to choose between good coffee and convenient coffee,” the coffee connoisseur said.
Another impressive member of the Omaha coffee club is Archetype Coffee, which also boasts its own roasting operation. What started with the original Blackstone location has now expanded to include a Little Bohemia iteration, with a third to come in the Millwork Commons development in North Downtown. “It’s exciting being a part of such a historical building,” owner Isaiah Sheese shared.
Archetype likes to call its approach to coffee “American-Scandi,” taking inspiration from the Scandinavian coffee scene in Norway, Denmark, and Sweden. “This means that we don’t really think about light or dark roasting, but take the approach of trying to bring out the amazing inherent flavors of the coffee without people tasting roast. We want to showcase the country, region, varietal, processing, and the farmer growing it,” explained Sheese. This Scandi sensibility extends to the atmosphere of the shops, as well, with intentionally open and airy design.
Archetype also stands out for its competitive nature, as team members enjoy pushing themselves to better their craft. Sheese himself placed 5th in the United States Barista Championship last year. Another barista, Paul Menefee, earned 4th place in the Brewer’s Cup Championship, and roaster Jason Burkum took part in the finals of the U.S. Roasting Competition and Cup Tasters Competition.
Those interested in trying out some Archetype heavy hitters should sample Sheese’s favorite batch-brewed coffee, which rotates regularly. Other top sellers include pour-overs, house-made chai, and a traditional macchiato. A recurring Nice Rollz popup, the Asian-fusion hit that was featured in the Winter 2021 issue of Dine Magazine, also delights with K-griddle Breakfast Sammie and Korean Egg Bread. Additionally, Donut Friday featuring Olsen’s Donuts remains a tradition at Archetype’s Blackstone locale. Omaha’s coffee scene remains a vital component to the local food and beverage field—and overall community.